CultureMob Interview: Tommy Smith, playwright of â€˜Demon Dreams' at West of Lenin thinks booing might be good!
Tommy Smith is an intense, intellectual guy, a lean bundle of frenetic energy. He is a â€˜local playwright’ similar to how Steven Dietz is â€˜local,’ spending a lot of time in Seattle while essentially living in New York City (Dietz teaches in Texas). Seattle has been privileged to see three of his plays, recently, with a production of Sextet at Washington Ensemble Theatre, White Hot at West of Lenin (by another producer) and now Demon Dreams, directed by West of Lenin purveyor AJ Epstein.
Tommy grew up in Gig Harbor and moved to Seattle in ’96, when he went to University of Washington. From there, he parlayed his acting skills onto mainstage productions on large Seattle theater stages, like Intiman and Seattle Repertory. He also wrote articles for papers like the UW Daily and The Stranger, but eventually was called to write for the stage.
Tommy relates, â€œIt was around then that I started veering into playwriting and I got encouraged by a lot of really great people. Shanga Parker at UW, and Craig Lucas when he was at UW in a residency, Elizabeth Engelman. Craig gave me names of people in New York. I love Craig Lucas because he saw something in (my writing) and then I was able to see it. That’s so important for a writer. You have to have one person who you love to tell you you can do it.
â€œI write about two pieces a year and they go in nine-month cycles. It’s usually something that provokes a violent reaction and is something I hate in myself and the only way out is to parse that among 12 characters or 30 characters, split it equally among the characters in the play and have them talk about it.
â€œI don’t know who said this: â€˜Psychology deals with our problems in the dark but theater does in the light.’ By the act of sitting there, (the audience is) sharing that problem and I think it’s far more therapeutic to go to theater than it is to go to therapy, because you can let go of it,â€ Tommy says decisively.
â€œMy life-long project of writing plays is to leave a record of the development of my consciousness, so hopefully by the end of my life I would be able to show someone my chronological library of plays and say, â€˜Here’s where I started and here’s where I ended,’ and you could track my problems. I’ve written about 14 plays so far and I can see that manifest.
“Bleeding Gums Murphy in The Simpsons says the blues isn’t about making yourself feel good, it’s about making other people feel worse. I think that can be applied to some of my plays. What he means is that it shouldn’t be me imparting everything sunny in my life, it should be me talking about all the awful things, so I can release them and give them to other people and they can go through that cathartic cycle because pain is so much more instructive than pleasure!â€
Tommy discusses the similarities between White Hot and Demon Dreams, which were coincidentally written right in the same period of his life. He gives this example of the cathartic cycle in the plays. â€œIf you watch White Hot and you hate how that man is treating that woman, you will wake up with that inside of you and you will enact that and use the image given to you in a safe place to change. When people say their life was changed by theater, it is usually never a show that is pleasant.
â€œDemon Dreams is supposed to be pleasant, but for young people it is dangerous. Grimm’s Fairytales are dangerous and this is the same. As an adult, you will look at it through a child’s eyes and feel that dangerous world and learn from it. If you’re a young person, your imagination immediately takes you there. But they can handle it.
â€œAll I can really do is write and hope my audience will want to talk about it to me or in their homes.Â White Hot is very edgy, adult, challenging. Demon Dreams is for younger audiences â€“ (but) it all comes from the same place.â€
Tommy compares the movies Taxi Driver and Hugo, both by Martin Scorsese. â€œScorsese is good at expressing this idea of what happens when an innocent person goes into a world that he knows nothing about. Where he was at any given moment, it was the same guy (in Taxi Driver and Hugo) but it expressed itself differently. I feel that both (my) plays express sadness at the loss of compassion.â€
Tommy has a number of different projects in the works, in what sounds like a constant stream. They include, â€œA DB Cooper project (note: the unsolved mystery airplane hijacker from 1971); a venueless sound piece for at home in the dark of your bedroom; a film with Ridley Scott about imaginary people who fall in love with each other, like if you and I had imaginary people and they fell in love and started to leave us.â€
One project, at The Flea Theater in New York, sounds a bit like Seattle’s 14/48 theater festival. It’s a set of three weekly serial short theater pieces that the audience votes on and if a story wins, another short is written for the next week’s presentation. It’s called #serials @theflea and is described as â€œa raucous late night play competition featuring The Bats and some of NYC’s hottest young playwrights and directors.â€
Tommy says, â€œIt’s a totally new play every week. At 1:30a.m., they’ve tallied the votes and I go to the back and start writing, and the next day I give it to the actors and they rehearse it for a week. And the audience gets to yell (a short) down if they don’t like it. At 14/48 you (the audience) have to endure. If it sucks in the performance (at the Flea), the audience would yell it down. I wish every audience would do that. There’s no false contract that we have to behave at theater and it becomes fun for everyone.â€
So, should audiences have that option everywhere? Tommy adds, â€œIn general, the conversation should be more open. I think there is a certain amount of decorum. This (the Flea) is an 11:00p.m. show. I don’t think it’s couth for someone to stand up and boo (a show) at 8:00p.m.
“I don’t want to hear ever that anything is bad, but I want people to tell you if it is. I want to cultivate an audience that is accepting of tangents and critical of what they’re watching. I don’t think booing is appropriate but I have to be prepared for it as an artist. If they (the audience) feel free to voice an opinion that’s maybe not well formed, it will teach them to form them and be passionate about theater that they love or they don’t.â€
Our 14/48 festival has been looking for ways to shake itself up, recently, with pulling production roles out of a hat (so a musician might have to write a play, instead) and performing outdoors. Maybe allowing less well-constructed pieces to get boo’d to a stop is something new to consider.